Around the Horn: What can backstops offer?
Leading up to the start of Spring Training, the Around the Horn series will examine each of the Twins' positional groupings heading into the 2019 season. This installment takes a look at Minnesota's catchers.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Don't underestimate the boost that a healthy Jason Castro can give the Twins in 2019.
Between Castro's recovery from surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee and the promise that backup Mitch Garver showed at the plate in his first full season at the Major League level, the Twins' catching situation looks much more secure now than it did last May, when Castro was ruled out for the remainder of 2018. Minnesota had to turn to an unproven Garver, Bobby Wilson and, later, Chris Gimenez to share backstop duties in what the organization had hoped was to be a season to build off its 2017 American League Wild Card campaign.
• Around the Horn: Rotation
Oh, and no conversation about Minnesota's catchers would be complete without a nod to baseball's newest darling, Willians Astudillo, who took the Target Field batter's box -- and recently the social media universe -- by storm with a promising set of Major League cameos to close out the 2018 season.
What can the Twins' catchers offer with the bat?
Castro had one great season at the plate in 2013, when he hit .276/.350/.485 with a 129 wRC+ with the Astros and was named to his only All-Star team. He was slightly below average among position players in '17, his last full season with the Twins, when he slugged 10 homers to go with a .242/.333/.388 line and a 93 wRC+.
But slightly below the position player average is fine among catchers, where defense is more of a priority. That offensive production isn't close to that of Wilson Ramos or J.T. Realmuto, but for the sake of comparison, Castro's wRC+ in 2017 would have been 15th in '18 among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.
Castro's patience at the plate also bodes well for a Twins lineup that doesn't have much in terms of on-base percentage. His 11.1 percent walk rate in 2017 would have been third among Twins starters, behind Robbie Grossman and Max Kepler, and ahead of Joe Mauer.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Garver established himself as a solid offensive catcher in his first full season, hitting .268/.335/.414 with seven homers and 19 doubles in 102 games. He showed improvement as the season progressed, raising his average by more than 40 points and his slugging percentage by more than 100 points between the first and second half. Garver also boosted his first-half OPS of .698 to an .814 mark following the All-Star break. His wRC+ of 102 placed him ahead of Yan Gomes and Willson Contreras.
It'll be tough to establish a true platoon behind the plate, as Garver has reverse splits, but however they split time, Garver looks to hold a significant offensive advantage over most backup catchers in the AL.
How about their defensive contributions?
Defense is Castro's true calling card. Twins general manager Thad Levine told The Athletic that the 31-year-old veteran is a "de facto pitching coach on the field" and lauded his gameplanning abilities. According to Baseball Prospectus, which calculates defensive catching metrics (though these metrics are less developed than others), Castro graded as an excellent pitch framer in 2017, ranking 15th among 111 catchers with 8.3 framing runs saved. He finished in the top 10 in framing runs saved in each of the previous three seasons.
For those that like more traditional metrics, Castro's catcher's ERA was 4.16 in 2017, more than a full run better than Gimenez, his backup.
Garver has been less effective defensively, grading as a bottom-10 framer in 2018, but he has been working at improving his receiving. Given his above-average bat for a catcher, Garver's ability to progress behind the plate could determine his role in the Twins' future plans.
What's going to happen with Astudillo?
With the Twins needing a roster spot for Nelson Cruz, who isn't likely to play the field in a meaningful capacity, the 25-man roster looks too crowded for Astudillo to crack it on Opening Day as things currently stand. But La Tortuga, as he is known, showed promise at the plate last season, batting .355/.371/.516 with three homers and 21 RBIs (and only two walks and three strikeouts). Of his 29 games, Astudillo caught and appeared all over the infield and outfield.
Astudillo continued that torrid hitting into the offseason, hitting .325/.370/.500 with 10 homers in 61 games in the Venezuelan Winter League and finishing second in the Most Valuable Player Award voting to former Twins outfielder Delmon Young. If the 27-year-old Astudillo can maintain this level of production, he should get his chances this season -- and beyond -- to again show that "chubby people also run," as he joked last season.
Who else is in the pipeline? (MLB Pipeline rankings)
No. 24 Ben Rortvedt (age: 21, highest level: Class A Advanced)
Projected depth chart (2018 statistics)
Castro (.143/.257/.238, 39 wRC+, 19 G, 0.0 WAR)
Garver (.268/.335/.414, 102 wRC+, 102 G, 0.9 WAR)